On the Brink of a New Year

On the brink of a new year, I can’t help but pause to reflect upon this 365-day journey. Christmas of 2016 is when my cancerous adventure started. Since then, I’ve walked numerous paths-some metaphorical and some literal. Within one full year, I was diagnosed with cancer, endured western medicine, submerged myself in eastern medicine to reclaim my life, was donned as being in remission and have traveled to both Hawaii and Grass Valley looking for answers. I sought an end to my mental confusion. I sought a rebirth on the volcanic spiritual grounds of a culture that has changed over time… I sought peace.

I came to realize many truths last week-some of which I’d like to share with you for one of those truths led me to the realization that we are all walking challenging paths, clouded with hope and sorrow on any given day.

I was reading a JIMBO TIMES: the LA Storytellerblog, when I realized that each of us in his/her own right are wrestling with similar questions: Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life?

Some of us travel the world, experiencing grand adventures, looking for answers in the outside world- while others find it in the four walls of a church. Regardless, we are seeking the same answers-especially when death comes knocking on the door.

Jimmy Recinos, the author of Jimbo Times, puts it well at the end of his blog when he states, “I don’t always need light to observe my existence; even through darkness, I can sort through its contents to still find enough of what I need from myself…” He understands that one can thrive in both, that the answers reside within us…

Just as darkness follows day, and day follows night, we must come to look at our world with a new perspective. Life isn’t always aglow, and it surely will never remain dark. Both states are always in flux and thus all we can do, all we have control over is our own responses. Knowing that change follows change, we must just “be.” We must mentally talk ourselves off of the ledge and reassure ourselves that “being” is all we can do.

There is no rhyme or reason to the darkness or the light just as there is no rhyme or reason to the speed at which a hummingbird flaps its wings. It just does. And in that same way, we as individuals, regardless of where we walk or how bright or dark our paths can be, we must realize one truth- it is all fleeting!

I found this out while watching seven days of sunrises while in Kauai the week of Christmas. I needed to breath, to be, to see the ocean and just let the sound of the waves wash away the memories of the past year when realization hit me- in a week, the ocean itself would be but a memory, mixed in with all the endless memories of moments that have come and gone.

Thus, sitting there I pledged to “be.” To remain present in each moment and rejoice in it- to see life not as good or bad, but as the flapping wings of the hummingbird, a hap chance moment that will come to pass for everything in life does just this.

Thus as my first ever written piece was published in EdifyFiction two days before Christmas, I made myself some promises:

1. I will revel in the present. 
2. I will walk my path steadfastly knowing that it too will pass.
3.I will write and share for doing so unites us all and sharing of one’s heart only empowers and inspires others to walk their paths honorably.

So, have I healed? Was Kauai the closing chapters of a book I want to long forget? Yes and no- I don’t ever want to forget what I endured for doing so also erases the lessons I’ve learned. But I aim to remember the past sparingly, using past moments to help others walk their present paths, realizing that as dark as their lives are, the darkness is as fleeting as the light and in time, everything good or bad will come to pass.

Happy New Year- enjoy the moment and I’ll see you all in 2018.

* * * * * 
If this is your first time reading these blogs, please subscribe. Who knows the next blog might be about you! If you know of anyone that would find this of interest, 
please pass it along.

I can also be followed at: @myaniki (Twitter), 8 Faces of Cancer (Facebook Group) or you can explore my writing via my Website

Till next time, go live, thrive, have fun, and do great things!

Some Universities Have About 20% Women Philosophy Majors and others About 40%, in Patterns Unlikely to Be Chance

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, about 32% of Philosophy Bachelor's degree recipients in the U.S. are women, a lower percentage than in almost any other discipline outside of engineering and the physical sciences. I would love to see that percentage rise. (I say this without committing to the dubious view that all majors should have gender proportions identical with that of the general population.)

A case could be made for pessimism. Although academic philosophy has slowly been diversifying in race and ethnicity, the percentage of women receiving philosophy BAs, philosophy PhDs, and publishing in elite philosophy journals has remained virtually unchanged since the 1990s. It seems that we have reached a plateau. Could anything move the dial?

I decided to look, institution-by-institution across the U.S., at the percentage of Philosophy B.A. recipients who are women. If there are some "outlier" institutions that have a much higher percentage of women philosophy majors than is typical, we could look more closely at those institutions. Such institutions might have policies or practices worth imitating.


For this analysis, I downloaded Bachelor's degree completion data from all 7357 "U.S. institutions" in the NCES IPEDS database for the academic years 2009-2010 to 2015-2016. For each institution, I examined four variables: total Bachelor's degrees awarded (1st major), total Bachelor's degrees awarded to women (1st major), total Philosophy Bachelor's degrees awarded (1st or 2nd major, category 38.01), and total Philosophy Bachelor's degrees awarded to women (1st or 2nd major, category 38.01).

To reduce the likelihood of high or low percentages due to chance, I limited my analysis to the 66 colleges and universities that had awarded at least 200 Bachelor's degrees in Philosophy over the period. Across these 66 institutions, there were 22150 completed Philosophy majors during the seven-year period, of which 7120 (32.1%) were women. (Across all institutions, 61963 Philosophy Bachelor's degrees were awarded (31.6% to women). So the 66 targeted institutions together awarded about 36% of the Philosophy Bachelor's degrees in the U.S.) I then arranged the institutions by percentages of Philosophy majors who were women. One would expect most of these institutions to be within a few percentage points of 32%. My interest is in the statistical outliers.

[Raw data for all institutions here. Summary data for the targeted 66 here.]

I wanted to be conservative in testing for outliers, so here is how I did it.

First, I performed a two-tailed two-proportion z test, comparing the proportion of women Philosophy majors at each target institution to the proportion of women Philosophy majors in all the remaining institutions combined. To correct for multiple comparisons, I used a Bonferroni correction, lowering the threshold for statistical significance from the conventional p < .05 (representing a 5% chance that results at least as extreme would arise from random sampling error) to p < .0008. Ten of the 66 institutions had proportions significantly different from the overall proportion by this measure.

However, some of those results might have been due to unusually large or small proportions of women in the overall undergraduate population of those institutions, so I performed a second test also. Overall, across all 66 institutions, 1.43% of men graduate with Philosophy majors, compared to 0.58% of women. Based on these numbers, I calculated an "expected" percentage of women Philosophy majors for each institution, based on the number of graduating men and graduating women at that institution: (total graduating women * .0058)/((total graduating men * .0143) + (total graduating women * .0058)). The resulting expected percentages ran from 25% (for Virginia Polytechnic, with a total graduating class of 45% women) to 43% (for Loyola Chicago, with a graduating class of 65% women). I then performed two-tailed one-proportion z-tests comparing the percentage of Philosophy majors who were women at each institution to this expected percentage of Philosophy majors at the same institution, using the same p < .0008 threshold to correct for multiple comparisons. Twelve institutions had gender ratios significantly different from chance by this measure.

For my final list of outliers, I included only institutions significantly different from chance by both measures -- that is, schools that both had a significantly higher or lower percentage of women Philosophy majors than did the other institutions and that had a significantly higher or lower percentage of women Philosophy majors than would be expected given the overall gender composition of their undergraduate graduating body.


Five of the 66 institutions were outliers by these criteria. Two were outliers on the low side:

  • University of St Thomas: Women were 9.7% of graduating Philosophy majors (32/329; vs 48% of Bachelor's degree recipients across all majors; two-prop p < .0001; one-prop p < .0001);
  • Franciscan University of Steubenville: 17.3% (43/249; vs 63%; < .0001, < .0001).

  • Five more institutions had fewer than 24% women Philosophy majors, with p values < .05 by both measures, but without meeting my stringent criteria for outliers. Due to the nature of multiple comparisons, some of these may appear on that list by chance.

    Three institutions were outliers on the high side:

  • University of Pennsylvania: Women 38.5% of Philosophy BA recipients (343/892; vs 51% among Bachelor's overall, p < .0001, p < .0001);
  • University of Scranton: 46.0% (108/235; < .0001, .0005);

  • and -- but I suspect there's something odd going on here --
  • University of Washington, Bothell: 72.8% (348/481; < .0001, < .0001).

  • UW Bothell doesn't appear to offer a straight Philosophy major; so I suspect these numbers are due to a potentially misleading decision to classify one of their popular interdisciplinary majors (Society, Ethics & Human Behavior?) as "Philosophy" (38.01 in the NCES classification). I'm looking into the matter. Meanwhile, let's bracket that campus.

    Between Penn and Scranton were several campuses with higher percentages of women among Philosophy majors, but smaller total numbers of Philosophy majors, and thus not crossing my stringent statistical threshold for outliers: University of Southern California (39.4%), University of Virginia Main Campus (39.4%), University of California Riverside (go team! 39.6%), CUNY Brooklyn (40.1%), Virginia Polytechnic (41.0%), Georgia State (41.1%), Boston University (41.3%), and Cal State Fresno (43.2%). None of these schools had strikingly high percentages of women BA recipients overall (45%-61%, compared to 57% women BA recipients in the US overall during this period and 54% in the 66 selected universities). Among these, U Virginia, UC Riverside, Virginia Polytechnic, and CSU Fresno all have p values < .05 by both measures. Again, due to the nature of multiple comparisons, some of these may appear on that list by chance.

    I draw the following conclusion:

    Some colleges and universities have unusually high or low percentages of women philosophy majors as a result of factors that are unlikely to be chance, across a range from about 10%-24% at the low end to about 38%-46% at the high end. If these differences are due to differences in policies or practices which differentially draw women and men into the Philosophy major, it might be possible for schools near the lower end of this range to increase their percentage of women Philosophy majors by imitating those at the higher end of the range.

    I don't know what explains the differences. It is striking that the two schools with the smallest percentage of Philosophy majors are both Catholic affiliated, so maybe that is a factor in some way. (ETA: Scranton, one of the high end outliers, is also Catholic affiliated!) Gender ratios among permanent faculty don't to be the primary determining factor. Judging from gender-typical names and photos on the Philosophy Department homepages, women are 5/24 (excl. 1) and 0/8 of permanent faculty at St Thomas and Fransiscan, vs 4/15 and 2/16 at Penn and Scranton.

    Philosophy Undergraduate Majors Aren't Very Black, but Neither Are They As White As You Might Have Thought

    Okay, I have some more data from the NCES database on Bachelor's degrees awarded in the U.S. A couple of weeks ago I noted that women have been earning 30-34% of philosophy BAs since the 1980s. Last week I noted the sharp decline in Philosophy, History, and English majors since 2010.

    Race and ethnicity data are a bit more complicated, since the coding categories change over time. Currently, NCES uses "American Indian or Alaska Native", "Asian", "Black or African American", "Hispanic or Latino", "Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander", "White", "Two or more races", "Race/ethnicity unknown", and "Nonresident alien". The last three of these categories are difficult to interpret, especially given changes over time; and "Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander" was included with Asian before 2010; so I will focus my analysis on the racial/ethnic categories Asian, Black, Latino/Hispanic, Native American, and White. [For more details, see this note.]

    Based on results from my analysis last year on PhDs in Philosophy, I had expected Philosophy majors to be overwhelmingly White. To my surprise, that's not what I found. Although recipients of Bachelor's degrees in Philosophy are somewhat more White than recipients of Bachelor's degrees overall, the difference is not large: 63% of BA recipients in Philosophy identified as White, compared to 60% of all graduating majors in the 2015-2016 academic year.

    In the NCES data, both Latino/Hispanic students and Asian students are approximately proportionately represented among Philosophy majors: 13% and 7% respectively, compared to 12% and 7% of graduating students overall. Of course Latino students are underrepresented among college graduates generally, compared to their prevalence in the U.S. as a whole (about 18% of the U.S. population overall). However, they don't appear to be more underrepresented among Philosophy majors than they are among Bachelor's degree recipients in general.

    Similarly -- though the numbers are very small -- Native Americans are about 0.4% of Philosophy degree recipients and about 0.5% of graduating students overall (and 1.3% in the general population).

    In contrast, Black students are substantially underrepresented: 5% in Philosophy compared to 10% overall (and 13% in the general population).

    Interestingly, these trends also appear to hold over time, back to the beginning of available data in the 1994-1995 academic year. White students are overrepresented in Philosophy by a few percentage points, Black students underrepresented by about as many percentage points, and the other groups are about proportionately represented. These trends persist throughout the broad decline in percentage of White students among Bachelor's recipients overall.

    Here's the graph for White students [update: corrected figure]:

    [click to enlarge and clarify]

    And here's Latino/Hispanic and Asian [update: corrected figure]:

    [click to enlarge and clarify]

    Native American is noisier due to small numbers, but roughly matches over the period:

    The most striking disparity is among students identifying as Black [update: corrected figure]:

    [click to enlarge and clarify]

    Looking at intersection with gender, 42% of Black Philosophy BA recipients in the most recent two years of data were women. (For comparison, 33% of Philosophy BAs overall were women, 57% of Bachelor's degree recipients overall were women, and 64% of Black Bachelor's recipients were women.)

    Evidently, the disproportionate Whiteness of Philosophy PhD recipients in the U.S. (recently in the mid-80%s, excluding nonresident alien and unknown) is not mostly explained by a similarly large disproportion among B.A. recipients, though the underrepresentation of Black students in the discipline does start at the undergraduate level.

    I'd be interested to hear what others make of these patterns.


    Note 1: I looked at all U.S. institutions in the IPEDS database, and I included both first and second majors in Philosophy. Before the 2000-2001 academic year, only first major is recorded. I used the major classification 38.01 specifically for Philosophy, excluding 38.00, 38.02, and 38.99. Only people who completed the degree are included in the data. Before the 2007-2008 academic year, the White and Black categories specify "non-Hispanic", and before 2010-2011, Pacific Islander is included with Asian. In the 2007-2008, "two or more races" is introduced as an option.

    Sharp Declines in Philosophy, History, and Language Majors Since 2010

    As I was gathering data for last week's post on the remarkably flat gender ratios in philosophy over time, I was struck by a pattern in the data that I hadn't anticipated: a sharp decline in Philosophy Bachelor's degrees awarded in the U.S. since 2010.

    In the 2009-2010 academic year, 9297 students received Bachelor's degrees in Philosophy in the U.S. In 2015-2016 (the most recent available year), the number was only 7507. In the same period, the total number of Bachelor's degrees increased from 1,597,740 (completing 1,684,011 majors, including double majors) to 1,922,705 (2,019,829 including doubles). In 2009-2010, 0.58% of graduating students majored in Philosophy. In 2015-2016, 0.39% did. [See Note 1 for methodological details.]

    Looking more closely at the year-by-year data, the decline in absolute numbers is entirely in the most recent three years, and quite precipitous:

    2010: 9297 philosophy BAs (0.58% of all graduates)
    2011: 9309 (0.56%)
    2012: 9376 (0.54%)
    2013: 9439 (0.53%)
    2014: 8837 (0.47%)
    2015: 8198 (0.43%)
    2016: 7507 (0.39%)

    As a fan of the Philosophy major, I am alarmed!

    A broader look at the data is partly reassuring, however: There was a similarly precipitous increase in the numbers and percentages of philosophy majors in the early 2000s, as displayed in the graph below. So maybe we're just seeing the pop of a philosophy bubble?

    [click to enlarge and clarify]

    For further context, I examined every other broad category of major with at least 100,000 graduating majors since the 2000-2001 academic year (27 broad majors total). Since 2010, only two other broad majors have declined in absolute number by at least 15%: History and English. Foreign language isn't far behind, with a 13% decline in absolute numbers. So Philosophy's decline seems to be part of a general decline in the main traditional humanities majors. (The three biggest gainers: Computer Science, Health Science, and Natural Resources.)

    I've graphed the data below. You'll need to click to expand it to see the whole thing legibly; apologies for my incompetence with the blog graphics. (I've thickened and brightened English, History, and Philosophy. Note also that the English line is mostly obscured by the Philosophy line in recent years.)

    [click to enlarge]

    I've put the raw numbers for all major categories in CSV here, if you'd like more detail.

    Finally, I looked at recent trends by institution type (Carnegie 2015 basic classification). As you can see from the chart below, the decline appears to occur across most or all institution types. (The top line, for four-year faith-related institutions, is jagged presumably due to noise, given low total numbers.)

    [click to enlarge]

    I'm not sure what to make of this. I suppose Wittgenstein, who reportedly advised aspiring students to major in anything but philosophy, would have approved. Thoughts (and corrections) welcome!

    ETA (9:55 a.m.): Several people have suggested that it relates to the Great Recession of 2008. I don't think that can be the entire explanation, since the recessions of the early 1990s and early 2000s don't correlate with sharp declines in the major. On Facebook, Todd Yampol offers this interesting analysis:

    In many states, business interests have put pressure on the state government to prepare students for the "jobs of the future". They complain that high school & college graduates don't have the specific skills that they're looking for. Also, there has been more and more emphasis on undergrads to finish in 4 years (for a 4-year degree). In California and many other states, there is a state-sponsored "finish in 4" initiative. They provide funding to the state universities for software & other projects that will help students finish in 4 years. They only way to do this, given all the crazy requirements these days, is to determine your major very early & stick with it. This is definitely the case at CSU. Not sure about UC. I believe this initiative started in CA around 2012. I've been working with CSU since 2014. I'm not saying that this is inherently a bad thing. It's just the environment we're living in. I come from a liberal arts background, and I see the value in being a well-rounded person.

    I think it comes down to the question "what is the purpose of a state university?" In some states like Wisconsin (where I grew up), there has been a lot of pressure from the (ultra-conservative) state government to dismantle the traditional approach to higher education & research, and turn the emphasis towards job training.

    Anyway, the pressure for job skills & to finish in 4 years makes it difficult for young people to explore and find their true interests. How many freshman / sophomores know that they're interested enough in philosophy / linguistics / history / etc to declare it that early? I didn't declare linguistics until my very last semester (long story).

    ETA2 (Dec 18): Some of the bump in the early 2000s is due to changes in NCES reporting. Starting in 2001, second majors are reported, as well as first majors. That accounts for that little jump from 2000 to 2001 (approx 0.40% to 0.48%) but not any of the increase from 2001 onward, after which the reporting remains the same.


    Note 1: Data from the NCES IPEDS database. I looked at all U.S. institutions in the IPEDS database, and I included both first and second majors. Before the 2000-2001 academic year, only first major is recorded. I used the major classification 38.01 specifically for Philosophy, excluding 38.00, 38.02, and 38.99. Only people who completed the degree are included in the data. Some majors have different classification titles and criteria over the period, so I needed to make a few coding/grouping decisions. The most important of these was disaggregating the History subfield from the "Social Sciences and History" category in the 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 data. Although there are some category and coding differences over time in the dataset, the 2011-2012 to 2015-2016 academic years appear to have used exactly the same coding criteria.

    Dreidel: A seemingly foolish game that contains the moral world in miniature

    [Also appearing in today's LA Times. Happy first night of Hannukah!]

    Superficially, dreidel appears to be a simple game of luck, and a badly designed game at that. It lacks balance, clarity, and (apparently) meaningful strategic choice. From this perspective, its prominence in the modern Hannukah tradition is puzzling. Why encourage children to spend a holy evening gambling, of all things?

    This perspective misses the brilliance of dreidel. Dreidel's seeming flaws are exactly its virtues. Dreidel is the moral world in miniature.

    For readers unfamiliar with the game, here's a tutorial. You sit in a circle with friends or relatives and take turns spinning a wobbly top, the dreidel. In the center of the circle is a pot of several foil-wrapped chocolate coins, to which everyone has contributed from an initial stake of coins they keep in front of them. If, on your turn, the four-sided top lands on the Hebrew letter gimmel, you take the whole pot and everyone needs to contribute again. If it lands on hey, you take half the pot. If it lands on nun, nothing happens. If it lands on shin, you put one coin in. Then the next player takes a spin.

    It all sounds very straightforward, until you actually start to play the game.

    The first odd thing you might notice is that although some of the coins are big and others are little, they all count just as one coin in the rules of the game. This is unfair, since the big coins contain more chocolate, and you get to eat your stash at the end.

    To compound the unfairness, there is never just one dreidel — each player may bring her own — and the dreidels are often biased, favoring different outcomes. (To test this, a few years ago my daughter and I spun a sample of eight dreidels 40 times each, recording the outcomes. One particularly cursed dreidel landed on shin an incredible 27/40 spins.) It matters a lot which dreidel you spin.

    And the rules are a mess! No one agrees whether you should round up or round down with hey. No one agrees when the game should end or how low you should let the pot get before you all have to contribute again. No one agrees how many coins to start with or whether you should let someone borrow coins if he runs out. You could try to appeal to various authorities on the internet, but in my experience people prefer to argue and employ varying house rules. Some people hoard their coins and favorite dreidels. Others share dreidels but not coins. Some people slowly unwrap and eat their coins while playing, then beg and borrow from wealthy neighbors when their luck sours.

    Now you can, if you want, always push things to your advantage — always contribute the smallest coins in your stash, always withdraw the largest coins in the pot when you spin hey, insist on always using what seems to be the "best" dreidel, always argue for rule interpretations in your favor, eat your big coins and use that as a further excuse to contribute only little ones, et cetera. You could do all of this without ever breaking the rules, and you'd probably end up with the most chocolate as a result.

    But here's the twist, and what makes the game so brilliant: The chocolate isn't very good. After eating a few coins, the pleasure gained from further coins is minimal. As a result, almost all of the children learn that they would rather enjoy being kind and generous than hoarding up the most coins. The pleasure of the chocolate doesn't outweigh the yucky feeling of being a stingy, argumentative jerk. After a few turns of maybe pushing only small coins into the pot, you decide you should put a big coin in next time, just to be fair to others and to enjoy being perceived as fair by them.

    Of course, it also feels bad always to be the most generous one, always to put in big, take out small, always to let others win the rules arguments, and so forth, to play the sucker or self-sacrificing saint.

    Dreidel, then, is a practical lesson in discovering the value of fairness both to oneself and to others, in a context where the rules are unclear and where there are norm violations that aren't rules violations, and where both norms and rules are negotiable, varying from occasion to occasion. Just like life itself, only with mediocre chocolate at stake. I can imagine no better way to spend a holy evening.

    Women Have Been Earning 30-34% of Philosophy BAs in the U.S. Since Approximately Forever*

    * for values of "forever" ≤ 30 years.

    The National Center for Education Statistics has data on the gender of virtually all Bachelor's degree recipients in the U.S. back into the 1980s, publicly available through the IPEDS database. For Philosophy, the earliest available data cover the 1986-1987 academic year. [For methodological details, see note 1].

    The percentage of Philosophy Bachelor's degrees awarded to women has been remarkably constant over time -- a pattern not characteristic of other majors, many of which have shown at least a modest increase in the percentage of women since 1987. In the 1986-1987 academic year, women received 33.6% of Philosophy BAs. In the most recent available year (preliminary data), 2015-2016, is was 33.7%. Throughout the period, the percentage never strays from the band between 29.9% and 33.7%.

    I have plotted the trends in the graph below, with Philosophy as the fat red line, including a few other disciplines for comparison: English, History, Psychology, the Biological Sciences, and the Physical Sciences. The fat black line represents all Bachelor's degrees awarded.

    [if blurry or small, click to enlarge]

    Philosophy is the lowest of these, unsurprisingly to those of us who have followed gender issues in the discipline. (It is not the lowest overall, however: Some of the physical science and engineering majors are as low or lower.) To me, more striking and newsworthy is the flatness of the line.

    I also thought it might be worth comparing high-prestige research universities (Carnegie classification: Doctoral Universities, Highest Research Activity) versus colleges with much more of a teaching focus (Carnegie classification: Baccalaureate's Colleges, Arts & Science focus or Diverse Fields).

    Women were a slightly lower percentage of Philosophy BA recipients in the research universities than in the teaching-focused colleges (30% vs. 35%; and yes, p < .001). However, the trends over time were still approximately flat:

    For kicks, I thought I'd also check if my home state of California was any different -- since we'll be seceding from the rest of the U.S. soon (JK!). Nope. Again, a flat line, with women overall 33% of graduating BAs in Philosophy.

    Presumably, if we went back to the 1960s or 1970s, a higher percentage of philosophy majors would be men. But whatever cultural changes there have been in U.S. society in general and in the discipline of philosophy in particular in the past 30 years haven't moved the dial much on the gender ratio of the philosophy major.

    [Thanks to Mike Williams at NCES for help in figuring out how to use the database.]


    Note 1: I looked at all U.S. institutions in the IPEDS database, and I included both first and second majors. Before the 2000-2001 academic year, only first major is recorded. I used the major classification 38.01 specifically for Philosophy, excluding 38.00, 38.02, and 38.99. Only people who complete the degree are included in the data. Although gender data are available back to 1980, Philosophy and Religious Studies majors are merged from 1980-1986.

    Aiming for Moral Mediocrity

    I've been working on this essay off and on for years, "Aiming for Moral Mediocrity". I think I've finally pounded it into circulating shape and I'm ready for feedback.

    I have an empirical thesis and a normative thesis. The empirical thesis is that most people aim to be morally mediocre. They aim to be about as morally good as their peers, not especially better, not especially worse. This mediocrity has two aspects. It is peer-relative rather than absolute, and it is middling rather than extreme. We do not aim to be good, or non-bad, or to act permissibly rather than impermissibly, by fixed moral standards. Rather, we notice the typical behavior of people we regard as our peers and we aim to behave broadly within that range. We -- most of us -- look around, notice how others are acting, then calibrate toward so-so.

    This empirical thesis is, I think, plausible on the face of it. It also receives some support from two recent subliteratures in social psychology and behavioral economics.

    One is the literature on following the (im-)moral crowd. I'm thinking especially of the work of Robert B. Cialdini and Cristina Bicchieri. Cialdini argues that "injunctive norms" (that is, social or moral admonitions) most effectively promote norm-compliant behavior when they align with "descriptive norms" (that is, facts about how people actually behave). People are less likely to litter when they see others being neat, more likely to reuse their hotel towels when they learn that others also do so, and more likely to reduce their household energy consumption when they see that they are using more than their neighbors. Bicchieri argues that people are more likely to be selfish in "dictator games" when they are led to believe that earlier participants had mostly been selfish and that convincing communities to adopt new health practices like family planning and indoor toilet use typically requires persuading people that their neighbors will also comply. It appears that people are more likely to abide by social or moral norms if they believe that others are also doing so.

    The other relevant literature concerns moral self-licensing. A number of studies suggest that after having performed good acts, people are likely to behave less morally well than after performing a bad or neutral act. For example, after having done something good for the environment, people might tend to make more selfish choices in a dictator game. Even just recalling recent ethical behavior might reduce people's intentions to donate blood, money, and time. The idea is that people are more motivated to behave well when their previous bad behavior is salient and less motivated to behave well when their previous good behavior is salient. They appear to calibrate toward some middle state.

    One alternative hypothesis is that people aim not for mediocrity but rather for something better than that, though short of sainthood. Phenomenologically, that might be how it seems to people. Most people think that they are somewhat above average in moral traits like honesty and fairness (Tappin and McKay 2017); and maybe then people mostly think that they should more or less stay the course. An eminent ethicist once told me he was aiming for a moral "B+". However, I suspect that most of us who like to think of ourselves as aiming for substantially above-average moral goodness aren't really willing to put in the work and sacrifice required. A close examination of how we actually calibrate our behavior will reveal us wiggling and veering toward a lower target. (Compare the undergraduate who says they're "aiming for B+" in a class but who wouldn't be willing to put in more work if they received a C on the first exam. It's probably better to say that they are hoping for a B+ than that they are aiming for one.)

    My normative thesis is that it's morally mediocre to aim for moral mediocrity. Generally speaking, it's somewhat morally bad, but not terribly bad, to aim for the moral middle.

    In defending this view, I'm mostly concerned to rebut the charge that it's perfectly morally fine to aim for mediocrity. Two common excuses, which I think wither upon critical scrutiny, are the Happy Coincidence Defense and The-Most-You-Can-Do Sweet Spot. The Happy Coincidence Defense is an attractive rationalization strategy that attempts to justify doing what you prefer to do by arguing that it's also for the moral best -- for example, that taking this expensive vacation now is really the morally best choice because you owe it to you family, and it will refresh you for your very important work, and.... The Most-You-Can-Do Sweet Spot is a similarly attractive rationalization strategy that relies on the idea that if you tried to be any morally better than you in fact are, you would end up being morally worse -- because you would collapse along the way, maybe, or you would become sanctimonious and intolerant, or you would lose the energy and joie de vivre on which your good deeds depend, or.... Of course it can sometimes be true that by Happy Coincidence your preferences align with the moral best or that you are already precisely in The-Most-You-Can-Do Sweet Spot. But this reasoning is suspicious when deployed repeatedly to justify otherwise seemingly mediocre moral choices.

    Another normative objection is the Fairness Objection, which I discussed on the blog last month. Since (by stipulation) most of your peers aren't making the sacrifices necessary for peer-relative moral excellence, it's unfair for you to be blamed for also declining to make such sacrifices. If the average person in your financial condition gives X% to charity, for example, it would be unfair to blame you for not giving more. If your colleagues down the hall cheat, shirk, lie, and flake X amount of the time, it's only fair that you should get to do the same.

    The simplest response to the Fairness Objection is to appeal to absolute moral standards. Although some norms are peer-relative, so that they become morally optional if most of your peers fail to comply with them, other norms aren't like that. A Nazi death camp guard is wrong to kill Jews even if that is normal behavior among his peers. More moderately, sexism, racism, ableism, elitism, and so forth are wrong and blameworthy, even if they are common among your peers (though blame is probably also partly mitigated if you are less biased than average). If you're an insurance adjuster who denies or slow-walks important health benefits on shaky grounds because you guess the person won't sue, the fact that other insurance adjusters might do the same in your place is again at best only partly mitigating. It would likely be unfair to blame you more than your peers are blamed; but if you violate absolute moral standards you deserve some blame, regardless of your peers' behavior.


    Full length version of the paper here.

    As always, comments welcome either by email to me or in the comments field of this post. Please don't feel obliged to read the full paper before commenting, if you have thoughts based on the summary arguments in this post.

    [Note: Somehow my final round of revisions on this post was lost and an old version was posted. The current version has been revised in attempt to recover the lost changes.]

    Yay Boo Strange Hope

    Happy (almost) Thanksgiving (in the U.S.)! I want to share a recent family tradition which might help you through some of those awkward conversations with others around the table. We call it Yay Boo Strange Hope.

    The rules:

    (1.) Sit in a circle (e.g., around the dinner table).

    (2.) Choose a topic. For example: your schoolday/workday, wilderness camping, Star Wars, the current state of academic philosophy.

    (3.) Arbitrarily choose someone to go first.

    (4.) That person says one good thing about the topic (the Yay), one bad thing (the Boo), one weird or unexpected thing (the Strange), and some wish for the future related to the topic in question (the Hope).

    (5.) Interruptions for clarificatory questions are encouraged.

    (6.) Sympathetic cheers and hisses are welcome, or brief affirmations like "that stinks" or "I agree!" But others shouldn't take the thread off in their own direction. Keep the focus on the opinions and experiences of the person whose turn it is.

    (7.) Repeat with the next person clockwise around the circle until everyone has had a turn.

    Some cool things about this game:

    * It is modestly successful in getting even monosyllabic teenagers talking a bit. Usually they can muster at least a laconic yay boo strange and hope about their day or about a topic of interest to them.

    * It gives quiet people a turn at the center of the conversation, and discourages others from hijacking the thread.

    * Yay Boo Strange Hope typically solicits less predictable and more substantive responses than bland questions like, "So what happened at school today?" Typically, you'll hear about at least three different events (the Yay, Boo, and Strange) and one of those events (the Strange) is likely to be novel.

    * The Boo gives people an excuse to complain (which most people enjoy) and the Yay forces people to find a bright side even on a topic where their opinion is negative.

    * By ending on Hope, each person's turn usually concludes on an up note or a joke.


    When I was touring Pomona College with my son in the summer of 2016, I overhead another group's tour guide describing something like this game as a weekly ritual among her dormmates. I suspect the Pomona College version differs somewhat from my family's version, since I only partly overheard and our practice has evolved over time. If you know variations of this game, I'd be interested to hear from you in the comments.

    A Moral Dunning-Kruger Effect?

    In a famous series of experiments Justin Kruger and David Dunning found that people who scored in the lowest quartile of skill in grammar, logic, and (yes, they tried to measure this) humor tended to substantially overestimate their abilities, rating themselves as a bit above average in these skills. In contrast, people in the top half of ability had more accurate estimations (even tending to underestimate a bit). The average participant in each quartile rated themselves as above average, and the correlation between self-rated skill and measured skill was small.

    For example, here's Kruger and Dunning's chart for logic ability and logic scores:

    (Kruger & Dunning 1999, p. 1129).

    Kruger and Dunning's explanation is that poor skill at (say) logical reasoning not only impairs one's performance at logical reasoning tasks but also impairs one's ability to evaluate one's own performance at logical reasoning tasks. You need to know that affirming the consequent is a logical error in order to realize that you've just committed a logical error in affirming the consequent. Otherwise, you're likely to think, "P implies Q, and Q is true, so P must be true. Right! Hey, I'm doing great!"

    Although popular presentations of the Kruger-Dunning effect tend to generalize it to all skill domains, it seems unlikely that it does generalize universally. In domains where evaluating one's success doesn't depend on the skill in question, and instead depends on simpler forms of observation and feedback, one might expect more realistic self-evaluations by novices. (I haven't noticed a clear, systematic discussion of cases where Dunning-Kruger doesn't apply, though Kahneman & Klein 2009 is related; tips welcome.) For example: footraces. I'd wager that people who are slow runners don't tend to think that they are above average in running speed. They might not have perfect expectations; they might show some self-serving optimistic bias (Taylor & Brown 1988), but we probably won't see the almost flat line characteristic of Kruger-Dunning. You don't have to be a fast runner to evaluate your running speed. You just need to notice that others tend to run faster than you. It's not like logic where skill at the task and skill at self-evaluation are closely related.

    So... what about ethics? Ought we to expect a moral Dunning-Kruger Effect?

    My guess is: yes. Evaluating one's own ethical or unethical behavior is a skill that itself depends on one's ethical abilities. The least ethical people are typically also the least capable of recognizing what counts as an ethical violation and how serious the violation is -- especially, perhaps, when thinking about their own behavior. I don't want to over-commit on this point. Certainly there are exceptions. But as a general trend, this strikes me as plausible.

    Consider sexism. The most sexist people tend to be the people least capable of understanding what constitutes sexist behavior and what makes sexist behavior unethical. They will tend either to regard themselves as not sexist or to regard themselves only as "sexist" in a non-pejorative sense. ("Yeah, so what, I'm a 'sexist'. I think men and women are different. If you don't, you're a fool.") Similarly, the most habitual liars might not see anything bad in lying or just assume that everyone else who isn't just a clueless sucker also lies when convenient.

    It probably doesn't make sense to think that overall morality can be accurately captured in a single unidimensional scale -- just like it probably doesn't make sense to think that there's one correct unidimensional scale for skill at baseball or for skill as a philosopher or for being a good parent. And yet, clearly some baseball players, philosophers, and parents are better than others. There are great, good, mediocre, and crummy versions of each. I think it's okay as a first approximation to think that there are more and less ethical people overall. And if so, we can at least imagine a rough scale.

    With that important caveat, then, consider the following possible relationships between one's overall moral character and one's opinion about one's overall moral character:

    Dunning-Kruger (more self-enhancement for lower moral character):

    [Note: Sorry for the cruddy-looking images. They look fine in Excel. I should figure this out.]

    Uniform self-enhancement (everyone tends to think they're a bit better than they are):

    U-shaped curve (even more self-enhancement for the below average):

    Inverse U (realistically low self-image for the worst, self-enhancement in the middle, and self-underestimation for the best):

    I don't think we really know which of these models is closest to the truth.

    Leashing PTSD

    Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of the after effects of cancer. There are no ands or ifs about it. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association (AADA) of America, PTSD is apparent when individuals “re-experience trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of an event, flashbacks, and nightmares.” I’m now four months out of my last chemo session and I still feel the effects of distress whenever anybody talks about cancer or the death of a mother, or the lonesome life a child will live after losing his/her parent. In last week’s blog I described how my middle school students wrote letters to the little nine-year-old boy named Jacob, who is dying of cancer. What I didn’t tell you is that I did not sleep much that week. I awoke with tremors every night, barely able to breath.

    But awareness of a malady and action to resolve the effects are two distinctly different beasts. So, I started researching. I wanted to know what the indicators of PTSD were so that I could adopt my own approach in dealing with it. I discovered that the AADA also says that “emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma” is a definite indicator that a person is suffering from PTSD. Until last week, I unknowingly practiced this.  I left the room whenever I heard the C word. I changed the channel during C related commercials and I tried to avoid the white elephant in the room.  I hoped that by doing so, I would simply forget that the last eleven months even existed. However, something changed. Mailing out the care package to Jacob reawakened the dormant side of me that had been hiding in the darkness.

    Since then I realized that avoidance doesn’t reduce fears and nightmares. Stepping into the center of the raging fire and letting it consume until it burns out is the only strategy I had not yet tried. So, I dove into the deep end of the pool!

    Las Wednesday evening I spoke before twenty cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers, sharing how I “Thrived through Cancer. ” I spent most of last Wednesday feeling dizzy and nauseous. I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t for the life of me stop from trembling. The thought of revisiting what I had been through and how I had endured it was more taxing than I thought. 

    I could have cancelled, I could have not shown, but both of those are characteristics that go against who I am and what I stand for. So instead, since I dipped my toe in, I decided to take a leap of faith and let the fire burn. I drove eastward towards Alhambra, where the United Methodist Hospital holds weekly cancer support group meetings.

    I spent an hour sharing the mathematical formula I’m convinced helped me withstand the side effects of the chemo and go from cancer to remission in eight months. And at the end of the night, as I drove homeward, I felt an internal shift. The fear had subsided just a bit, and I knew that I could not leave this battleground untended.  

    Thus, I seem to have reawakened to a new purpose, which was affirmed yesterday during a Serenity Club meeting I hold on Tuesdays, at lunch, with fifteen or so interested middle school kids.

    “Please,” I said while distributing a piece of paper to each member, “take a minute to write 1 or 2 words that tells us what the word serenity means to you, what it is you feel in your heart when you come here.”

    The children wrote and then shared-



    “Honoring of voice.”

    Then came the one that stood out, “anger and sadness.” It was the boy’s first visit to our club.

    “Thank you for your honesty,” I said.

    He glared.

    I added, “I hope that you will tell us more when you feel comfortable, because here in this little circle of ours I’d like us to share how we cope with the anger and sadness that the world throws our way, how we learn to endure and thrive.”

    I then shared a Michael Jordan quote with them: “If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up, figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”  

    We read it three times and by the end the angry boy said, “I don’t think they’re talking about a wall!”

    “No,” said the kid sitting beside him, “I think they’re talking about cancer, the cancer that tried to kill Ms. Marine and the cancer that my mom battled for four years. She couldn’t just give in to the sadness and anger, she had to get through it, just like what Michael Jordan says we need to do to overcome the obstacles in our lives. Even now, we never know if she’s going to live or whether it’s going to come back…”

    In a room full of teens, a pin could have hit the floor and the sound would have resounded like church bells.  The angry boy sobered up, calmed down and stared in shock as his friend began to sob. The others rushed to his side, hugging him and holding tight.

    “Oh son, all any of can do is share our love with those in our lives while they are here,” I whispered.

    “And don’t you remember last week when we wrote letters to that little 9 year old who is dying of cancer? We never know when our end is, we just have to live and help each other through the darkness,” another kid said.

    “But how?” The boy gasped.

    “By counting all of our blessings. I am grateful for all of you who have shown me that teenagers have feisty spirits and voices that need to be heard. I am grateful for my boys and my husband. I am grateful for my friends and my family. And most importantly…” and that’s when it hit, I was grateful for the opportunity to relive my terror and shed some light for those that are feeling the darkness the most. PTSD is real and it is crippling, no doubt about it. But by leashing it and facing one’s fears, one can use their experiences to help others and manage PTSD as one does a trained dog.

    The bell rang soon after and the kids stood up grudgingly, “Can’t we meet every day?” One asked.

    “Sounds like you’re grateful for this group. Make sure you count your blessings this Thanksgiving and share your love with those that matter regardless of how painful it is,” I said as they filtered out of the room.
    * * * * * 
    If this is your first time reading these blogs, please subscribe. Who knows the next blog might be about you! If you know of anyone that would find this of interest, 
    please pass it along.

    I can also be followed at: @myaniki (Twitter), 8 Faces of Cancer (Facebook Group)

    Till next week, go live, thrive, have fun and do great things!